Net zero: an update from the environmental audit committee

Green Alliance is tracking the UK’s net zero policy progress in key areas of government throughout this year. This week we are featuring a series of daily blogs in which we hear from the chairs of five parliamentary select committees, who answer our questions about the progress being made in their committee’s area of interest. This first post is by Phillip Dunne MP, chair of the Environment Audit Committee.

Is your select committee holding any inquiries relevant to the UK’s net zero ambitions?
It is impossible to scrutinise any government environment policy without looking through the net zero lens. This year, more than any other, with the UK hosting COP26 in November, it is absolutely critical that the government shows climate leadership in the policies it introduces to protect the environment, from lowering emissions to protecting our precious biodiversity.

Since becoming chairman, the EAC has focused on four substantial inquiries: electronic waste and the circular economy; greening the post-Covid recovery; energy efficiency of existing homes; and biodiversity and ecosystems.

We have further inquiries on which we are still collecting evidence: Green Jobs; and Sustainability of the Built Environment. Of those reports we have published, our findings are clear: the government is running out of time to bring in practical policies that get to the core of meeting net zero. For e-waste, we warned that critical raw materials that feature within the mobile phones and laptops we chuck away are running out, and are necessary for electric vehicle batteries, solar panels and wind turbines. In greening the post-Covid recovery, we argued that the economic stimulus must be seen as an opportunity through which to push our ambitious climate change objectives, namely around providing incentives for repair and energy efficiency. On the energy efficiency of existing homes we stressed that, if action is not taken this decade, net zero by 2050 will be impossible.

In our carefully crafted and well evidenced reports we also provide the government with suggested solutions rather than focusing purely on the problems. Our umbrella inquiry, Technological Innovations and Climate Change, does just that. Over the past 14 months, we have considered offshore wind, hydrogen, heat pumps, tidal, and community energy. We’re now collecting written evidence on the supply chain for electric vehicles, and I would encourage anyone concerned with this area to submit their views.

There are so many British success stories, and pockets of innovation around the country, the government just needs to figure out how to unlock that potential. A lot of it is down to providing financial support and signposting investible projects to the sector. But at the crux of it, is ensuring that we have enough skills in our workforce to truly make net zero Britain happen.

Where do you believe the government has done well in decarbonising resources and waste?  
Over the years, the EAC has done a significant amount of work on waste, amplifying some stark stats on the amount Brits waste each year. From 700,000 plastic bottles being littered every day, to sending 336,000 tonnes of clothing to landfill and incineration every year, and each UK household hoarding 20 unused electronic items. Something must be done.

The government appears to be taking our views on board. In the Environment Bill we have seen moves to increase the charges for single use plastics and we’re seeing more emphasis on Extended Producer Responsibility, so manufacturers are responsible from the start to finish of a product’s lifetime. It is unfortunate that the Environment Bill has been delayed but it is now returning to the Commons on 26 May. I share the sector’s frustration that consultations on Extended Producer Responsibility and deposit return schemes for plastic bottles have also been subject to delay, with the latter’s roll-out now looking like it will be 2024, a year later than planned.

What challenges remain for reducing emissions in resources and waste on the path to net zero?
The government’s warm words and targets on waste are welcome, as it shows intent, but there has been too little tangible policy with teeth.

We know the fashion industry has a huge impact on the climate, with textiles being one of the biggest source of consumption related emissions. It is good that the government has agreed to include textiles in its next iteration of the waste strategy. By being smarter with how we use, reuse and recycle clothing and textiles we could start to put the fashion industry on a path to net zero.  

The government needs to learn from best practice on effective Extended Producer Responsibility, and perhaps look to France as a good example in fashion. Brands and retailers are obligated to ‘refashion’ items, leading to a more circular economy. To get an idea of the wider environmental footprint of the fashion industry, you only need to look at the extortionate amount of water being used to grow cotton, often in already water stressed parts of the world.

We have just concluded our work on deposit return schemes, which can increase the recycling of single use containers. Recently, we wrote to the government outlining our views that glass, aluminium, plastic and cartons should all be included in a deposit return scheme.

A circular economy for e-waste is desperately needed to recycle precious metals from devices to power our low carbon future. The current linear tech company business model is reliant on continuous consumption, a throwaway culture and shortlived products often impossible or expensive to repair. But many metals found in mobile phones and laptops are needed in electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and solar panels. It was, therefore, promising to see, in the government’s response to our report, that it is looking into enforcing marketplaces and tech giants to offer take-back schemes to properly recycle products when they deliver new items. We also called for a Right to Repair, so welcome legislation, due later this year, that will require spare parts and repair manuals to become available for consumers to fix their products. Better resource efficiency, using resources more effectively and generally reducing our resource use could save considerable carbon emissions.

The latest update of Green Alliance’s Net zero policy tracker was published in April.

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